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With Russia's Biggest Hit Opening in the US, All Eyes Are On the Country's Film Industry and Anti-LGBT Laws

Photo of Casey Cipriani By Casey Cipriani | Indiewire February 26, 2014 at 11:17AM

Now, with the Olympics over and the world's eyes turned from Sochi, Russia's biggest film is coming to America and bringing with it questions about how these laws and policies affect the Russian film industry.
Yanina Studilina in "Stalingrad"
Sont Pictures Yanina Studilina in "Stalingrad"

Now, with the Olympics over and the world's eyes turned from Sochi, Russia's biggest film is coming to America and bringing with it questions about how the country's controversial anti-LGBT propaganda regulation laws and policies affect the Russian film industry.

"Stalingrad" is Russia's first film ever presented in IMAX 3D and is the country's highest grossing film of all time, having earned the equivalent of over $65 million at the box office during its six week run in Russian theaters. The film examines the extended battle between Soviet and German forces that helped turn the tide of World War II. "Stalingrad" is indeed an over-the-top, epic war drama no doubt inspired by many an American blockbuster.

Actress Yanina Studilina plays Masha, a Russian woman trapped in Stalingrad who catches the eye of a conflicted German soldier with whom she begins a relationship. When asked about how Putin's law may affect Russian cinema, she said that, as an actress it doesn't affect her much, but acknowledged that having LGBT characters in a film might be a bit difficult.

"Maybe for the mainstream it would be tough," she said. "There is, of course, some themes that are not so well discussed. But I think if you want to do [that] kind of movie, you can do it at a film festival. If it has a great showing at film festivals it can move to the mainstream."

Such is what happened with France's "Blue is the Warmest Color," which won the Palme D'or at Cannes, though its Russian distribution was small and limited to ages 18 and over.


She explained that an Estonian director she had previously worked with who was making a film about a romance between two women – one Russian and one French – had approached her asking if she would be interested in playing the Russian woman. She's not yet sure if she will take the part, but emphasized that she wasn't hesitant about the content. 

"He was just asking if I was OK dealing with that at all," she said. "It's a part I would love to take, especially in this project. But he was a little bit nervous about how it will get released in Russia."

"Stalingrad"'s director, Fedor Bondarchuk, said that film content is not an issue; rather, for decades the problem was financial.

"I think beginning from the 90s there haven't been any restrictions in terms of what to shoot," said Bondarchuk. "The only restriction was economic. And education because now we have new cameras and digital programming. This is the question, not the right choice in themes or genres."

Both Bondarchuk and Studilina believe that the issue of the LGBT propaganda law is, in a way, being blown out of proportion by the Western press, and creating a negative view of a brutal Russia that is simply nonexistent.

"We are just more conservative, I think, in some ways," Studilina said. "It's just a huge country and there are a lot of people who do like Putin and who don't like Putin. It's the same as in the U.S. someone is a Democrat the other is not." The law, Bondarchuk said, doesn't affect his filmmaking.

"We have put a lot of gay couples in films. I don't know of any films which have been rated higher because of gay people in it." Bondarchuk said. They say that despite the images of brutality and discrimination coming out of Russia, LGBT people do not live in fear and that Russia is not the frightening bastion of homophobia that the rest of the world may imagine. "I learn about this problem only from the newspapers but not in real life," Bondarchuk said. "It is not a real life problem."

Dr. Vitaly Chernetsky of the University of Kansas, an expert on Russian Cinema with an interest in LGBT and gender studies, disagrees.

"As someone who is originally from the former Soviet Union, things in Russia look very bleak indeed at the moment," he said.

He brought up the recent scandal concerning the Tchaikovsky biopic currently in production. After much back and forth with the film's screenwriter, it became clear that director Kirill Serebrennikov would not shy away from the composer's historically accurate orientation. The film received an initial promise of funding from state agency Cinema Fund, but then had its installment refused. Serebrennikov and his producer, Sabina Eremeyeva, announced they would look for funding abroad.

"Far From Sunset Boulevard"
"Far From Sunset Boulevard"

Chernetsky could recall only three other Russian films in recent years that had gay themed subject matter. "You I Love" (2003) was an international festival/art-house hit but received no serious domestic distribution. "Far from Sunset Boulevard" (2006) played in theaters in France but was refused domestic distribution in Russia. The film's out gay director, Igor Minaev, has since emigrated to France. "Veselchaki" ("Jolly Fellows," 2009) was a film about drag queens intended for the domestic audience, but, as Chernetsky pointed out, features a very disturbing ending: all five main characters are murdered by homophobes but reunite in heaven. It did not do well in theaters.

Chernetsky said that gay characters have occasionally appeared on Russian TV in recent years, but as comic or villainous stereotypes. Since the gay propaganda law passed, he said, there has been only one gay character on Russian television in a mini-series called "The Thaw," a "Mad Men" like drama set in the 1960s Soviet film industry.

"It was quite shocking that it was broadcast on Russia's state-owned Channel 1," Chernetsky said. "It shows that the old Russian saying that 'the severity of Russian laws is compensated by inconsistency of their application' rings true. The laws are applied just enough to create an atmosphere of fear."

It is that atmosphere of fear, he said that keeps filmmakers from taking any chances.

"Overall, the main problem is self-censorship resulting from this fear and the invisibility of positive gay role models in public," he said. "There was an actual lesbian and gay culture developing slowly but surely for about 15 years, from the time of the repeal of the sodomy laws in 1993 until a few years ago, and now it has been unceremoniously forced back into the closet." 

As an ideologically tinged war epic, "Stalingrad" presumably had no problems receiving its state funding, though that's not to say the film didn't encounter its own controversy. A petition to ban the film in Russia was introduced. It objected to the film's empathetic portrayal of the Nazi character played by Thomas Kretschmann and also resented the romantic relationship between his and Studilina's characters. Bondarchuk said that World War II is a somewhat sacred subject in Russian filmmaking.

"You I Love"
"You I Love"

"It is very difficult and dangerous to touch it," he said. "Even amongst the youngest audience who are free and open to everything and new tech and so on, if you touch World War II, the war of the great fatherland, they become conservative." They screened "Stalingrad" for Russian veterans in the same city, now called Volgograd.

"I was so, so afraid of this screening," Bondarchuk said, but he insisted that audiences are changing so much, that the time had come for a new approach, and the Veterans reacted well.

"The theme of romantic link between a Russian woman and German soldier is really politically incorrect, even still today," Studilina said. "But I think that love can transcend religions, nations, language, politics, any barrier."

Let’s hope that for Russia, that sentiment will one day include gender and sexual orientation.

"Stalingrad" opens in the U.S. on February 28

This article is related to: Stalingrad, Russia, Thomas Kretschmann, Fedor Bondarchuk, Yanina Studilina, Olympic Games , Olympics, Sochi 2014 , Interviews, Features, Filmmaker Toolkit: Distribution, Filmmaker Toolkit, LGBT